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‘Red Oaks’ Proves That the Prurient Male Gaze Is Alive and Well

Amazon, the e-commerce behemoth that is coming ever closer to eliminating the time between desire and fulfilment, is not satisfied with being merely the world’s biggest bazaar. Over the years, it has become a content generator of its own, buying newspapers, publishing books and, apparently, producing Jewish-themed television shows.

The latest in the oeuvre — following award-winning “Transparent” and preceding an upcoming sitcom from Woody Allen — is “Red Oaks,” a sometimes absurd, sometimes tender comedy about a Jewish country club in New Jersey in 1985.

A self-aware homage to the great teen movies of the 1980s, the show focuses on the romantic and professional pursuits of a group of late teens and early 20-somethings whose summer is spent working at the club. The lead character is David (Craig Roberts), a humanities-inclined New York University student whose father, Sam (Richard Kind), is pushing him to be an accountant.

David works as an assistant tennis pro at the exclusive Red Oaks Country Club, along with his schlubby, stoner buddy, Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), who’s a parking valet, and his blond, doe-eyed girlfriend, Karen (Gage Golightly), who’s a fitness instructor. Over the summer, David finds himself tangled up with the club president, Getty (Paul Reiser), and his daughter, Skye (Alexandra Socha) — a character inspired by Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club.”

Pop culture’s treatment of Jews of the ’80s tends to rely heavily on farce. Puffy sleeves and shiny cars apparently render all-comers foolish: lovable, insufferable, earnest, funny but fools regardless. Of course, there’s something instructive about this treatment. The ’80s was an age of decadence, of new moneyed excess, a communal adolescence in which nobody could take their eye off pretty, shiny things. We see ourselves as older and wiser now, as having moved past the flagrant materialism and on to higher and nobler pursuits. As such, we tend to take our ‘80s with a dose of irony because it helps reaffirm the distance between us and them.

“Red Oaks” doesn’t follow this rulebook. As New York Times critic Mike Hale put it, The show “manages to be of the ’80s rather than about them, an affectionate and startlingly authentic evocation rather than a satire or a dissection.” The smarmy Wall Street guy? The nebbishy romantic? The sensitive artsy-type mired with indecision? They’re all there, but this time afforded more intimacy and nuance than usual in representations of this era. They all have their moments of blinding ambition, along with a chance to display their capacity for generosity.

Unfortunately, “Red Oaks” doesn’t afford the same privilege to its women. The show features an equally recognizable set of female characters. There’s a ditzy blond, a moody brunette and a constantly kvetching and kvelling Jewish mother, played by Jennifer Grey of “Dirty Dancing.” (On “Red Oaks,” somebody has definitely put Baby in the corner — the suburbs.) But unlike their male counterparts, they lack complexity and a subjectivity of their own. When they are not being ogled for a beat too long by the camera, these women exist almost exclusively as players in the stories of the lives of men. We get a few hints at female-driven plots, but the only one with any staying power — a seduction into modelling — is more in service of male fantasy than it is in exploring the experience of women.

Perhaps if the show had made more of an attempt to have scenes that featured two female humans speaking to each other, some of this might have been remedied. Alas, I can remember only two short ones, both of which were brief and part of a storyline that falls off midseason. The show barely passes the Bechdel Test, thanks to a very brief lesbian subplot in which two women speak to each other about something else besides a man.

Otherwise, despite the occasional knowingness, we spend most of our time seeing the fictional world through what Laura Mulvey famously called the “male gaze.” Obviously men can gaze in other ways, but in the case of “Red Oaks,” neither Nisha Ganatra — the woman who directed two episodes — nor any of the male writers or directors achieves that breadth of vision.

So why do we set shows in the past? Superficially speaking, it gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves from a safe distance. It also allows us to indulge in a little nostalgia, which makes us feel both good and more connected to one another. These are all fine reasons, certainly fine enough for me to watch. But doing it for these reasons alone is a missed opportunity.

Setting a show in a previous era also gives us a chance to ask the questions whose answers weren’t given much airtime during that period. There’s probably no better example of this than “Mad Men,” which turned the peripheral roles of the past, the secretaries and assistants, into some of the most vital and absorbing television characters in recent memory. The bosomy, well-groomed housewife? The obsessive Jewish mom? The sultry princess? The eager-to-please pretty girl? I wanted to learn so much more about these characters that have been flattened into stereotypes for much too long now.

To be fair, there were a number of powerful women in the ’80s who told their own stories. We had Molly Ringwald films and Madonna; female subjectivity was hardly absent. We even had Sally Ride, a woman who went to outer space and wrote about it afterward. Still, culturally speaking, the Reagan-era left us with a litany of gendered clichés and a pop culture heritage that merits some questioning

“If it floats, flies or f—ks, rent it,” club president Getty tells another character towards the end of the season. It’s a line of thinking that makes sense for the character, I just wish the show itself didn’t seem to halfway buy into it too.

Elissa Strauss is a regular Forward columnist.

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